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Cathedral safeguarding processes were too slow to stop sex offender

27 May 2022


Rochester Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral

THREE cathedrals have been criticised for safeguarding failings in the case of William Scott Farrell, a sex offender.

Mr Farrell, a former director of music at Rochester Cathedral. was sentenced to five years imprisonment in August 2019 for sexual offences involving children (News, 16 August 2019).

The lessons-learnt review, which was published on Thursday, found that there were “a number of opportunities” to challenge his behaviour that were missed by the cathedrals that employed him. The review makes 11 recommendations to the Church of England to “improve culture, support and develop existing good practice, remove barriers, and improve safeguarding outcomes”.

In 2019, Mr Farrell pleaded guilty to three counts of gross indecency with a boy under 16 (relating to three different victims), which occurred while he was assistant organist of Ely Cathedral from 1999 to 2002, and to two counts of voyeurism and one count of taking indecent images of a child, committed in Rochester (News, 31 May 2019).

Mr Farrell was also employed by Newcastle Cathedral between 2002 and 2008. He was not charged with any offences the occurred during this time; however, the review found that there were “a number of concerns raised and missed opportunities to deal with inappropriate behaviour” during his time in Newcastle.

The three cathedrals that employed Mr Farrell all released statements on Thursday afternoon.

The Dean of Ely, the Very Revd Mark Bonney, said: “Our thoughts and prayers are very much with those who have suffered as result of the actions of William Scott Farrell.”

There were “key lessons to be learnt” from the review. “We are indebted to those survivors who have been able to share their painful experiences,” Dean Bonney said, and he offered “sincerest apologies to all those who have been hurt”.

The Dean of Rochester, the Very Revd Dr Philip Hesketh, echoed this concern for the victims. “To them, I say again how truly sorry we are for what happened, and for the part we played in allowing Farrell’s abuse to take place,” he said.

Dr Hesketh said that the review “provides a shocking picture of missed opportunities, failings of practice, and derogation of responsibility”, and pledged to consider what further improvements can be made within the cathedrals safeguarding procedures, assisted by a new working group.

The Dean of Newcastle, the Very Revd Geoff Miller, said that responding to the recommendations in the report was the cathedral’s “utmost priority”.

A key detail discussed in the review was a letter sent by the Vice Dean at Ely in August 2002 to Mr Farrell, copying in the Dean and Chapter of Ely and the Dean of Newcastle, where Mr Farrell was by then employed.

Referred to as the “Ely letter”, it related to an allegation of professional misconduct made by a year 8 student at the King’s School, Ely, and also details invitations for students to attend his flat and “horseplay” in a swimming pool, but that it was accepted that there were no “sinister overtones” to Mr Farrell’s behaviour.

The Ely letter was not kept within Mr Farrell’s personnel file. It only came to light after his resignation from Rochester, following his arrest for sexual offences committed there, when his office was being cleared out.

A safeguarding review at Newcastle Cathedral found that the letter had been seen by the Dean and the Canon Precentor, but that it was not properly recorded. A further, anonymous, letter was received by Rochester Cathedral in December 2008, saying that Mr Farrell was a danger to children.

The cathedral took advice from an independent HR adviser, and it was decided that Mr Farrell’s clean CRB check and the anonymity of the letter meant no further action should be taken, and the letter destroyed in order to comply with data protection laws.

One the 11 recommendations made in the report is to ensure that outside advisers engaged by the Church are instructed to put safeguarding as “an absolute priority” when giving advice.

The independent reviewer, Chris Robson, suggests that “better recording, including detailed narrative, would have resulted in the cumulative impact of WSF’s behaviour becoming apparent. This in turn would have highlighted safeguarding risks that existed and should have led to interventions.”

He recommends that the Church “develops a strategic plan to ensure that all safeguarding concerns are recorded (the review is aware that a national recording system is being piloted) and are available to safeguarding professionals for assessment.”

Mr Farrell’s behaviour “would now be recognised as grooming”, Mr Robson says, and he notes that it extended to winning the trust of the parents of his victims. One of the offences for which he was convicted occurred in the family home of the victim.

The report criticises the culture in some of the music departments in which Mr Farrell worked, saying that the perception of him as a charismatic educator allowed him to escape proper oversight, while the nature of the work involved constant interaction with children.

Several recommendations relate to safeguarding in cathedral music departments and attached schools. Mr Robson suggests higher levels of supervision with “clear lines of accountability”, and an “internal inspection regime” to monitor safeguarding.

The review quotes one individual who described the pace of change in the Church of England’s safeguarding regimen as “glacial”, and Mr Robson criticises the lack of urgency within the system. He highlights the fact that, when an official visitation was triggered in Rochester after the arrest of the assistant director of music, a friend of Mr Farrell (he was sentenced to three years imprisonment for sexual offences against a child), the subsequent report was not shown to the cathedral chapter until more than a year after its completion.

The visitation had been conducted while Mr Farrell was still in post. The independent review judges that the report “presented the clearest opportunity to challenge, address and deal with WSF’s behaviour. It is clear that this did not happen.”

Mr Robson suggests that the delay in presenting the visitation report to the Chapter showed that senior clergy “considered the ‘reputation’ of religious establishments or individuals on a par or perhaps of even greater importance than safeguarding”.

The C of E’s lead bishop on safeguarding is the Bishop of Huddersfield, Dr Jonathan Gibbs, soon to be installed as the new Bishop of Rochester (News, 31 March). He said on Thursday: “I agree wholeheartedly with the review’s conclusion that the pace of change in the Church has been too slow, and that we still have a way to go until everyone truly sees safeguarding as their responsibility. This report should be compulsory — and uncomfortable — reading for church leaders at every level.”

Dr Gibbs acknowledged that there were “clearly missed opportunities to challenge Farrell’s behaviour”.

“The report does acknowledge that there have been improvements in practice throughout the review period, and highlights examples of this, particularly around safer recruitment; but we must continue to learn and develop.”

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